BookPage contributing writer Alden Mudge was excited to have the opportunity to interview Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Rick Atkinson for our June issue. Mudge had read and admired the first two books in Atkinson’s acclaimed WWII trilogy and couldn’t wait to devour the third. In a guest post, he details Atkinson’s methods for keeping track of the huge volume of material he assembled to tell this complex and riveting story.
Several of my friends are as avid fans of Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy as I am. And like me, they marvel at his command of the thousands of details large and small that make his history of World War II in Western Europe such a riveting read. “Ask him how he kept track of all that stuff,” they’d say to me. And so I did.
“When I’m researching, I try to be fairly systematic,” Atkinson told me when I finally got the chance to ask him. “Everything that I find, whether it’s in a book, or at the National Archives, or the Imperial War Museum or wherever, goes into a computer file.”
Atkinson, who calls himself an archive rat and who seems to also be something of a numbers guy, keeps a log about his research and writing. According to his log, for the final volume of the trilogy, The Guns at Last Light, he amassed 1,363 computer files, which amounted to 5,725 pages of notes, not including relevant notes he gathered while researching the previous two volumes of the trilogy.
“You can wander into the woods on a subject like this and never wander out,” Atkinson said, after telling me that the U.S. Army records for World War II—records from just one service branch from one country—weigh 17,000 tons. Being done with the research phase “is part of the art. I set a mark on the wall, usually with strong encouragement from the publisher, long in advance and say OK if I don’t know it by that date, I’m never going to know it and I stop. I stop going to archives. I just stop.”
Then the hard work begins. “I start putting together an outline, and I do that by going through each one of the 5,725 pages line by line thinking OK where does this tidbit go, where does that fact go. It’s excruciating. It starts from nothing but you do it day after day, working your way through all these pages and the next thing you know, you’ve got the whole outline. It’s very tedious but when I get through, everything has been organized.”
The outline for The Guns at Last Light is twice as long as the finished narrative, which Atkinson wrote chronologically, from prologue through to epilogue. The narrative is 641 pages long. Notes and selected sources for this amazing effort occupy another 200 pages.
“Some people think it’s lunatic, but I’ve used this particular system for four books now. It works for me.”